It was just a bone fragment, a small piece from a human skull, but pulled from the icy expanse of an Alaska glacier, it proved enough to solve a mystery six decades old.
"It stirred everything back up again," said Coralee Hays, 77, of Redington Shores, remembering the phone call she received from the Air Force in February with the news about her brother.
For one moment that day, Hays could breathe easy with the answer she had sought so long.
But only for a moment.
Now, there was a eulogy to prepare — a daunting prospect for a woman who had never in her 77 years written or spoken for an audience.
More daunting still, Hays knew that among the mourners would be Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to set foot on the moon.
At first, she demurred.
"I told the chaplain I couldn't do the eulogy. I just didn't think I was emotionally up to it."
But then she thought of Bobby.
• • •
Robert "Bobby" Moon was 9 years older than his sister, born on a military base before their mother, Virginia Brashears, divorced and remarried.
Hays lived with Moon in Wilmette, Ill., just north of Chicago, until 1950, when she and her mother moved to Sunset Beach.
As is the way of older brothers, Moon liked to tease his little sister, sometimes hitting her with water balloons.
But his real passion was aviation.
"Bobby always wanted to fly," Hays said, something he picked up from his father, who was a pilot.
Growing up, Moon spent hours working on model aircraft, filling his room with replicas of Mustangs, Spitfires, Focke-Wulfs and other fighting planes of the time.
"He didn't want me to touch them," Hays said with a chuckle. "When he was gone, I wasn't even supposed to go into his room and look at them."
As he built the models, Moon was building his dreams.
"He always wanted to be in the Air Force."
Hays recalled the time her brother, in his late teens, went shopping at an army surplus store.
"One of his treasures was a pilot's jacket he bought that day."
The fleece-lined, brown-leather jacket came with a patch.
"My brother said the pilot didn't make it. That patch covered up a bullet hole."
With the hindsight of decades, Hays now sees deeper meaning in the patch.
"Looking back, I think it was an omen."
• • •
After graduating from a technical school in Flint, Mich., in 1950, Moon achieved his dream and enlisted in the Air Force, Hays said.
Moon aced flight school, scoring one of the highest proficiency ratings possible.
That earned him an assignment to fly the plane of his dreams, the new F-94 Starfire fighter jet.
The day he earned his wings, he married his long-time girlfriend, Joan Windleborn.
"My brother was a happy camper," Hays said.
But happiness proved to be short-lived, in part because of a request from his bride.
• • •
By November 1952, America was back in the middle of a shooting war in Korea and a spreading Cold War with the Soviet Union.
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Moon was ordered to Alaska because of Soviet activity in the area.
Before he went, though, Moon's wife talked his commander into letting him stay with her one more night.
On Nov. 22, a day after the rest of his crew left for Alaska, Moon boarded a C-124 Globemaster II cargo plane, heading from McChord Air Force Base in Washington to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska.
He was one of 52 men on board.
• • •
Not long afterward, more than 3,800 miles to the southeast, 14-year-old Coralee Brashears was sitting on the wooden steps of her apartment in Sunset Beach when a taxicab pulled up.
"My mom started screaming," Hays said. "I knew why, too. It was post-World War II and that's how that news was delivered."
Her brother Bobby was riding on a cargo plane that ran into a terrible storm and disappeared over Alaska.
For a week, the family fretted over Moon's fate. Then they learned part of the wreckage had been spotted and there were no survivors.
The news devastated his mother, a grief compounded by the nature of the crash site — a shifting Alaska glacier unlikely to surrender the remains of the Globemaster or its passengers.
A few years later, while on a trip to the Florida Keys with her college friends, Hays received word that her mother tried to kill herself with a combination of alcohol and barbiturates.
Hays rushed home to find her mother in a coma. Brashears recovered from the overdose, but she never got over losing her son.
"He was my mother's star," Hays said. "His death was awful for my mom. It changed our lives."
• • •
The years passed and Hays married, had kids of her own, and divorced. But the mystery of where Bobby Moon ended up still lingered, unsolved when her mother died in 1978.
Then in 2012, the wreckage was finally rediscovered, the Air Force said, when an Alaska National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew spotted debris during a training mission over the Colony Glacier, east of Anchorage and near Mount Gannett along Alaska's southern coast.
Three days later, another Alaska National Guard team landed at the site to take photographs and found artifacts connected with the wreckage.
News of the discovery again sent Hays into an emotional spin. Eventually, the remains of 17 people on board the flight were identified, but not Bobby Moon. Finally, four years later, last February, Hays received the phone call from Allen Cronin, the Air Force civilian in charge of the recovery.
Remains that turned out to be her brother, the skull fragment, along with those of the pilot had been found in June 2015, but the process of identification had taken months.
"The past four years have been a wonderful journey," Hays says. "But it's been stressful."
Saying she "never expected any findings," Hays has only praise for those who worked on the glacier to find the remains.
"I was extremely grateful, especially for my mom. She desperately wanted that closure."
• • •
Closure was delayed for Hays. She had a eulogy to write and read aloud to dozens of friends and relatives for the memorial service and burial at Arlington National Cemetery on July 29.
Among the relatives was Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr., known worldwide as Buzz.
Aldrin was Moon's first cousin. The two grew up sharing a love of flying.
Aldrin went on to West Point and the astronaut corps, gaining fame as the man who stepped on the moon after Neil Armstrong. Moon, Hays likes to point out, is the last name of Aldrin's mother.
Struggling with her emotions and her health, Hays wrote out 534 words as a eulogy for her older brother.
Fighting discomfort and the heat of a late July afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery, she delivered it.
I have many memories. I only knew Bobby for 14 years, but I can tell you, he was my Knight in Shining Armor. He was a tease. Like dropping water bombs on my head. And, much to his delight, he took great aim. He would take me up to the hockey rink. I would just watch. It was always so fierce. There was the time that Bobby took a shot and his best friend's two front teeth were knocked out. He was so sorry. And then there was the trip to the movies, John Wayne in "Red River." He left the theater with a swagger. I was just thrilled to be there. ... Today, 64 years later, family and friends have gathered together to celebrate Bobby's life. Especially for his Mom and Dad to have the closure they so desired. With God's grace and the help of the U.S. Air Force, Bobby can now rest in peace.
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.